It was early in the morning when he led five other men to the farm to get food. Four of the men had machetes and spears while another man carried the group’s hoes and baskets. A ravaging leopard had held the town of Ohia hostage but Okonkwo was determined to go to the farm and harvest food for his family. On their way, when they laid down their guards and thought the leopard had gone away, it suddenly pounced on Okonkwo who was leading the group. With paws dug into Okonkwo’s body, the leopard and Okonkwo began a struggle that saw them rolling down the hill. Okonkwo screamed for help but his companions had run home under the pretext that they went to seek help. Okonkwo managed to kill the leopard with a dagger but the beast had inflicted severe harm on him.
Two days later, Okonkwo Adi died. Before Okonkwo Adi died, he left an instruction that his son, Eze Adi, should continue his education. Eze and his mother went through strenuous circumstances in an effort to accomplish that goal. They had to contain with the sabotage of Okonkwo Adi’s relations who used up his wealth to give him what they called a befitting funeral in spite of Eze’s mother’s protest that the wealth would be better used for Eze’s education. Eze and his mother eked out a living, determined to fulfill that mission despite the mounting odds. When it became almost impossible, fate intervened. It led Eze’s teacher, Mr. Okafor, to shoulder the responsibility for a while. When Mr. Okafor was at the point of giving up, fate brought back soldier Wilberforce Ezeilo from Second World War and through him, Eze’s hometown of Ohia established a scholarship fund with which he continued his schooling beyond Ama and up to Obodo. At Obodo, Eze passed his Standard VI and gained admission into one of those big colleges at Onitsha.
Following Okonkwo Adi’s death, Eze was developmentally transformed. He not only became a provider for his family, he also became a caregiver to his mother when she was ill. Eze was cracking and selling palm-kernels as a means of sustenance. He also set trap in the bush for animals, which he would sell as bush meat. His sister Ulu, who was a helping hand married a soldier and went away with her soldier husband. Eze’s uncle, Iwe, seized the forty pounds given as present to Eze’s mother as custom demanded. The elders of Ohia supported him in spite of her plea that the money should be used for Eze’s education. Eze began to hate his relatives. He would beat up their children at the slightest provocation and often refused to write letters for them unless he was paid upfront. As Eze progressed in school he became conceit. He talked down on people he met. His pride was curtailed when Chinwe, the girl his father had warned should never beat him, came first in the Standard VI examination.
Okonkwo Adi is dead. That much is clear.
Reading Eze Goes to School by Onuora Nzekwu and Michael Crowder, many years after class one, many things struck me. This book, set in the 40s somewhere in Eastern Nigeria, had all the elements of the forces acting everywhere East of the Niger today. The death of Okonkwo signified the death of that progressive force in Igbo land. In fact, the very nature of his death, which bothered on betrayal by kinsmen, captured the fundamental nature of the political paralysis facing Eastern states. Until Wilberforce returned from his sojourn abroad, his land was surrounded by darkness with voices of truth silenced. Wilberforce fought for progress, which culminated in Eze heading to Onitsha for college. In the sequel to Eze Goes to School called Eze Goes to College, we saw Eze in Prince of Peace College, Onitsha. Eze was the hope and aspiration of his community. As the son of Okonkwo Adi, Eze was expected to give back to his society and shine as an example of what an ideal Igbo man should be. Eze was literally the dream of the future. If there was a man destined to change the minds of other men, it was Eze. The strong lineage through which enlightenment and Igbo Renaissance was to emerge ought to have come from Eze. Did it happen?
Where is Eze now? Are the Wilberforce Ezeilos currently abroad going to return home to champion the rejuvenation of their society? Where is Chinwe now? Did she marry another business man and bury her brilliance inside the containers coming down to Lagos from China? Would any teacher be given an opportunity in today’s Eastern Nigeria to make the kind of plea Mr. Okafor made on behalf of Eze? Sixty years after, are there still kids like Eze who would like to go to school but had tremendous odds stacked against them?
Where are Eze’s children? Do they know how Eze went to school? Are they concerned that there are children in Nigeria of today who are passing through things Eze passed through 60 years ago?
Since Eze went to school, I understand that Akin has also gone to school and so has Sani. Even Labaran in the Plateau region has also gone to school. The simple question I can’t seem to find answer to is: And then what?
A version of this piece was first published by Nigeriavillagesquare.com on Nov. 24, 2004.